By Fr. Ian Ker
Fr. Ian Ker is the leading expert on the life and works of John Henry Newman. He is the author of several books, including Mere Catholicism.
Becoming a full member of the Church does not, unfortunately, guarantee that a person will be free of the temptations and weaknesses that belong to our humanity, which remains wounded by that inevitable orientation to sin that is our fallen condition. Not even the spiritual nourishment of “living on” Christ’s Body and Blood can ensure complete immunity from the continuing effects of the diseased state in which we find ourselves.
Fortunately, however, there are two other healing sacraments which can be applied to the moral and spiritual wounds that we suffer as a result of our innate tendency to satisfy our own egos rather than attend to our real interests. The first of these is usually referred to as “Confession.” It is also called “the Sacrament of Penance” because of its penitential nature, or alternatively “the Sacrament of Reconciliation” because its purpose is to reconcile.
To begin with, the obvious question that will be asked is: why is this sacrament necessary when a Christian can confess directly to the God of love who is all-forgiving? To go through another human being is surely not only unnecessary but actually undesirable, as it seems to deny the possibility of direct access to God as well as God’s readiness to forgive without conditions or intermediaries.
The general answer to this objection is that it assumes a relationship with God which is not, in fact, the kind of relationship that Christ had in mind when He formed a new Chosen People. As we have seen, the uniqueness of the individual is not in question. What is in question is how the individuality of the person is best realized. Do I express myself most authentically and fully when I am isolated from my fellow human beings, or when I am in some sort of community and relationship with them? We have need of each other, both at the most basic level of day-to-day living and at the deeper level of a fulfilled life. For we were created not to live by ourselves, but with one another. This life of community and relationship exists already in the God of three Persons who cannot be the God of Love unless there is Somebody to be loved.
When, then, we seek God’s forgiveness, there is no reason why this should not involve others. If God created human beings not to live in isolation but to live in a close union both with one another and with Him, then there is nothing weak or indulgent in wanting to share my guilty secrets with another person, particularly if that person is empowered as a representative of the Church to give me God’s forgiveness. For it is not just that there is an inevitable social dimension to life, but, as we have seen, God invites human cooperation, involves human beings in His plans, indeed depends in a sense on their help. The Church is His agency on earth, and her leaders, the successors of the apostles, together with their cooperators, are His agents and instruments.
There is the further dimension that sin is not only an offense against God but also against our fellow human beings. This is manifestly true of many or most sins, when we sin more or less seriously against our neighbor. But is it true of all sins? What about our most private acts and thoughts, which scarcely harm anyone else? This sounds like a plausible objection until we remember that the most personal of our actions, which have no direct effect on anyone else, do unfortunately have an indirect effect. To think murderous thoughts is certainly not as bad, or the same as, actually murdering somebody. But we all know that the thought is father to the act. What we think today, we may do tomorrow. But even apart from that, whenever we do anything that is contrary to the human nature which is meant to be the image of the divine nature, we damage ourselves, we add to the wounds that prevent us from being the kind of persons God wants us to be, and consequently, we do have a bad effect on other people. If we were isolated individuals, the latter would not be true. But because we are social human beings, interconnected and interdependent, nothing we do, however privately, is without its ultimate effect on others. The state of our hearts, the state of our minds, inevitably influences our external behavior, and that clearly affects other people. There is no isolating ourselves from others; no one is an island on his own.
Not only do we need to make our peace with God and the human race, we also, as members of the Church, offend against the Church when we sin and, therefore, need to be reconciled with the Church, too. If I commit a murder, I have effectively broken off relations not only with God and the human family but also with Christ’s Body, the Church. Such a serious sin necessarily excludes me from the community, into which I have to be reintegrated if I want to continue to be a Christian. To be reconciled to Christ requires being reconciled to His Body, the Church, and it is only by asking forgiveness that I can be welcomed back. One can’t make one’s peace with Christ without at the same time making one’s peace with the People of God, where He is to be found and through which He is now present to the world.
If the Church was nothing more than an association or fellowship to enable people who call themselves Christians to come together for worship, mutual aid, reflection, and so on—then no doubt the rupture which sin causes would not have all that much effect on our membership of a more or less voluntary association. After all, it is not something to which we are bound to belong by virtue of being a Christian. Such an idea of the Church assumes that there need not only be one Church; it is being a believer in Christ that counts, not what Church one chooses to belong to. But, as we have seen, the Catholic understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ, united with Christ and united in herself as signifying that human unity which has been broken by sin, does not accept this separation of faith from Church—to be a Christian is to be a member of the new People of God. And therefore failings, especially serious failings, not only call into question one’s identity as a Christian, but they also affect one’s membership of the Church. To rupture one’s relationship with Christ is at the same time to rupture one’s relationship with His Church.
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Catholicism can mystify or even repel other Christians, while its complexities can confuse Catholics themselves. Fr. Ian Ker’s stimulating book, Mere Catholicism makes Catholicism come alive as the fullness of Christianity.